The Historical Reason We Pair Tomato Soup And Grilled Cheese

Peanut butter and jelly, spaghetti and meatballs, tequila and lime — some flavor pairings are so iconically intertwined that imagining one without the other is almost impossible. For the majority of Americans since the 1920s, grilled cheese and tomato soup has been one such pairing, and the story behind this classic combo is more historically rooted than you may realize.

While the complementary textures and flavors of these two dishes are certainly part of the reason we are so drawn to them together, the duo's origin story can be traced through some key events in American history. First, the emergence of big-name brands in the 1920s and the resulting increase in economic prosperity among working families ignited a preference for ease and convenience over the frugality and thriftiness that had prevailed before. 

Ultimately, it was the stock market crash of 1929 –which kickstarted the decade-long Great Depression and made inexpensive products with long shelf-lives essential — that further solidified this union in our cultural lexicon.

Comfort food in the Great Depression

With financial struggles on the rise and millions of American men facing unemployment during the 1920s, many women started entering the workforce to ameliorate their family's financial standing. However, since working women earned less and had fewer benefits, and balancing a budget and feeding a family became more time-consuming, many were forced to stay home to maintain their household. Feeding a family and running a home under such duress required great skill, resourcefulness, and creativity — including in the kitchen.

Since previous staple ingredients like milk, vegetables, and meat became incredibly expensive, mass-produced alternatives became necessary replacements. Things like spam, canned vegetables and soups, margarine, and other processed foods allowed people to provide a substantial, nourishing meal for their families without the higher cost for fresh, whole ingredients. Flour, too, was inexpensive, so homemade bread was an easy way to bulk up a meal.

Known then as toasted cheese sandwiches, or cheese dreams, the delicious and filling grilled cheese sandwich became a staple meal in family homes in this time. During WWII, the hearty grilled cheese sandwich was further paired with tomato soup in government institutions, military mess halls, and school lunch rooms, to balance the meal with vitamins and nutrients from the fruit. Since canned tomatoes and tomato soup were readily available and shelf-stable, it was an easy and delicious way to compliment and elevate the basic sandwich, and thus the classic pairing got its roots.

The persistence of this soup and sandwich combo

Although the combination of grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup is rooted in a desperate need to feed people as inexpensively as possible, it has remained a constant comfort craving from one generation to the next. And with decades of trial and error under our belts, we've become experts in the craft, identifying the key mistakes to avoid making with grilled cheese sandwiches and discovering ways to consistently reimagine the meal in new ways.

From most its humble beginnings, grilled cheese has climbed to the highest heights: The most expensive iteration in the world is the Quintessential Grilled Cheese at Serendipity3 in New York City. For $214, you'll get French bread made with Dom Perignon champagne and edible gold flakes, topped with a rare caciocavallo podolico cheese, truffle butter, truffle oil, and extra gold leaf for flair. To complete the meal, it's served alongside a South African lobster tomato bisque.

For home chefs looking to up their game more economically, Ina Garten's grilled cheese croutons can also transform the traditional soup and sandwich pairing from a childhood favorite to a singular dish fit for a fine dining establishment. Experiment with different cheese combos and soup pairings, and the options are truly endlss.